Nearly two years after Laci Peterson was reported missing on Christmas Eve, jurors today recommended her husband, Scott, be put to death for the slayings of the pregnant woman and their unborn son.
Defense attorney Mark Geragos had his arm around Peterson as the jury entered the courtroom. Peterson did not show any reaction when the verdict was read. But Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, was crying.
The jury began deliberating Peterson's fate last Thursday and took about 11 ½ hours to reach a unanimous decision on the sentence recommendation. Jurors reached their decision after they requested autopsy photos and other evidence that had been under court seal and presented during the first phase of the trial.
In addition to the autopsy photos, they asked to see aerial photographs of San Francisco Bay -- which covers the area where Peterson said he had been fishing the day Laci was reported missing and where prosecutors believed he dumped her body -- and the widely publicized Christmas party picture of Laci wearing a red pantsuit.
The jury looked tired following the announcement, and one juror appeared to have been crying. Two jurors smiled at Rocha as they exited the courtroom.
Following the verdict, jury foreman Steve Cardosi told reporters the sentencing decision was difficult. "It just seemed to be the appropriate justice for the crime, given the nature and how personal it really was against his wife and his child," he said.
Laci's stepfather, Ron Grantski, told reporters the family has lived a nightmare for two years. "It hasn't changed. It is still a nightmare," he said, with Rocha and other family members and friends crying beside him. "It should not have happened. It hurts too many people for no reason. But justice was served."
Grantski thanked the police for their work on the case and said the jury made the right decision. "They had no reason to doubt that it was Scott who did what he did," he said, "and he got what he deserved."
'The One Person That Should Have Protected Them'
Laci, 27, was about 7 ½ months pregnant when Scott Peterson reported her missing on Dec. 24, 2002. Peterson said he had been fishing alone that day, but prosecutors said he killed Laci on either Dec. 23 or Dec. 24 and used concrete anchors to sink her body in the San Francisco Bay.
Her remains and those of the unborn son she had planned to name Conner washed ashore separately on San Francisco Bay beaches in April 2003. The bodies were found not far from the area where Peterson said he had been fishing.
"Scott Peterson was Laci's husband, Conner's daddy, the one person that should have protected them, and for him to have done that …" juror Richelle Nice told reporters, shaking her head.
The judge will take the jury's recommendation into consideration when he formally sentences Peterson, 32, on Feb. 25. Although he is not bound by the recommendation, it would be highly unusual for him not to follow it.
Geragos said all angles for appeal will be pursued and called for the media to give Peterson's parents some time before asking them to talk. "Obviously we're very disappointed," he said, adding, "I hope you understand it's a difficult time."
In his closing arguments in the penalty phase of the trial, prosecutor Dave Harris called Peterson "the worst kind of monster" who was undeserving of sympathy and urged jurors to impose the death penalty.
But Geragos begged jurors to spare his client, saying a life sentence would mean that Peterson would not stand a chance of getting out of prison.
"He will stay in that cell every single day until he dies," Geragos said. "There does not need to be any more death in this case."
A Tale of Two Grieving Families
Jurors convicted Peterson on Nov. 12 of first-degree murder in Laci's death and second-degree murder in the death of the fetus. Prosecutors suggested Peterson killed Laci because he was tired of his marriage, feeling pressure from her pregnancy and wanted to continue his affair with his mistress, Amber Frey. Frey cooperated with prosecutors. Tapes she made of her phone conversations with Peterson were played for jury.
During the penalty phase of the seven-month-long trial, jurors heard emotional testimony from friends and relatives of Laci and Scott as prosecutors argued that Peterson should be executed while the defense maintained his life was worth saving.
Prosecutors made their case in one day of testimony. Four relatives, including Rocha, Laci's mother, told jurors that Laci's slaying and her unrealized hopes of becoming a mother had devastated them. At one point, a tearful Rocha yelled at Peterson from the witness stand.
"She wanted to be a mother. That was taken away from her," Rocha said. "Divorce was always an option, not murder."
Peterson's defense used 39 witnesses over an seven-day period to try to convince jurors to spare his life. Friends and relatives repeatedly stressed that Peterson never showed any prior sign of violence and told jurors he was a good, caring person who was looking forward to being a father. Several testified that they did not -- could not -- believe he could have killed Laci and his unborn child.
Peterson's mother, Jackie, told jurors Laci's death was devastating for her family as well as the Rochas.
"The two of them [Scott and Laci] were inseparable," Jackie Peterson said, speaking softly with the help of a portable oxygen tank she uses for a lung ailment. "I loved Laci as much as Sharon [Laci's mother] loved Scott."
Jackie Peterson pleaded with jurors to spare her son's life, telling them his execution would be like losing an entire family for her and Scott's loved ones. They had already lost Laci, she said; they don't want to lose Scott, too.
"I really feel that if you were to take Scott away from us … we would lose a whole family," she said. "It would be like Laci never existed."
Years of Appeals Likely
Geragos had argued that jurors should be allowed to consider the effect a death sentence would have on Peterson's family, given that the slain fetus was to be a grandson to both the victim's and the defendant's parents. But Judge Alfred A. Delucchi rejected Geragos' argument and said jurors could spare Peterson the death penalty if they had lingering doubt about the circumstances of the crime and its premeditation.
As Peterson sits on death row, his case will likely face years of appeals. His attorneys have indicated they will argue, among other issues, that he never stood a chance of a fair trial in Redwood City, even after it was moved out his hometown of Modesto because of pretrial publicity.